Jacques Derrida and Post-Structuralism

JACQUES DERRIDA (1921 – 2004)

The Path to Post-Structualism

Jacques Derrida was a notoriously difficult philosopher to comprehend, especially for Americans, who are baffled by his writing style and his purpose. Americans, being pragmatic, prefer ideas that can be applied to the real world and Derrida’s works seems to belong to the realm of the esoteric and untethered from actuality. Certainly, for English speakers, Continental philosophy is challenging. English sentences are relatively brief, constructed in terms of beginning middle and end. German sentences are characterized by their often extreme length–pages in some instances–their many digressions and add-ons–and the oddity of the verb at the end. French writers, that is those who write non-fiction, tend to layer their texts. The writer has a point to make and makes it and then makes it another way and then makes the same point yet another way. Derrida, however, needs to be approached, not was an ordinary philosopher, but as a poet of sorts. Basically, he was a reader who read the works of other philosophers and who then writes about the writings of others. Derrida is also a reader who reads and contemplates words and enjoys playing with words and creates word play. If one wanted to visualize his books, a flock of starlings would be a good analogy: the flock swoops in one graceful direction and then gathers itself together to swarm off in another arc. The reader of Derrida needs only to follow along and enjoy the ride.

In retrospect it is interesting to note how many French philosophers were impacted by Algeria, Jean-François Lyotard taught there, Pierre Bourdieu did his military service there and studied the sociology of the post-colonial nation, and Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, both Jewish were born there. In the article, Algeria’s Impact on French Philosophy: Between Poststructuralist Theory and Colonial Practice (2011) Muriam Haleh Davis listed these notables:

What were the implications of Algeria’s role in social theory, and how do we make sense of the fact that the list of thinkers directly influenced by events in Algeria — Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, Louis Althusser, Jacques Derrida, Hélène Cixous, and Michel Foucault — reads as a canonical list of French philosophers?>

In Out of Africa: Post-Structuralism’s Colonial Roots (2010), Pal Ahuluwalia made the case that the end of (French) colonialism in Algeria also marked an end of all of the promises of Modernism. On one hand, the Enlightenment had high ideas and made extravagant promises, while at the same time its agents busily conquered and colonized non-Western lands in its zeal for imperialism. Modernity was full of contradictions that imploded under their own weight. As Ahuluwalia noted, the attacks on received wisdom came from marginalized outsiders, such as Derrida and Cixous, who were pushed to the fringes because they were Jewish. He stated, “the most vigorous dismantling of the assumptions of Western intellectual orthodoxy comes from its margins” Cixous referred to the generation of French philosophers who came of age in the 1960s as the “incorruptibles.” Indeed, most of this group had outsider status and, having no vested interests in the status quo, proved to be the most trenchant critics of established modes of thought, hence “incorruptible.”

Derrida described himself as “little black and very Arab Jew” and indeed, in some of the pictures of him as a young man, when the light is right, he is notably darker than his companions, but in other images, he is not “little black” at all. It can be presumed that Derrida was expressing his personal feeling of being marginalized. His biographer Benoît Peeters described his intellectual life as an outsider who was at the heart of French thought, a man in the middle who always stood somewhat apart from a society that had named him alien. It is predictable that it would be he, in an act of audacity, who would put Structuralism under an analytic spotlight and would challenge its leading thinker, Claude Lévi-Strauss. It is interesting that one of Derrida’s first forays into the writing of Lévi-Strauss is an oblique accusation of ethnocentric thinking uncovered in Tristes Tropiques (1955). This popular book by Lévi-Strauss is neither fish nor fowl, both biography, memoir, and an anthropological of his time in Brazil that is more anecdotal than scientific. In his essay, “The Violence of the Letter: From Lévi-Strauss to Rousseau,” published in Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida enlarged upon an essay, “Nature, Culture and Writing” published in Cahier pour l’analyse. Indeed, as Benoît Peeters reported in Derrida: A Biography (2012), Lévi-Strauss himself responded to the analysis by writing to the editors,

..aren’t you playing a philosophical farce by scrutinizing my texts with a care that would be more justified if they had been written by Spinoza, Descartes or Kant? Frankly I don’t think that what I write is worth so much fuss, especially Tristes Tropiques, in which I didn’t claim to be setting out any truths, merely the daydreams of an ethnographer in the field–I’d be the last to say there is any coherence in them.

Whether or not Tristes Tropiques was “serious” enough to bear the weight of Derrida’s analysis is perhaps immaterial for the younger philosopher found a contradiction, unrealized by the anthropologist at the heart of this book. In Lévi-Strauss chapter, “The Writing Lesson,” there is an assumption of the superiority of writing illustrated when the anthropologist handed out pencils to the supposedly untouched native tribe in Brazil. But this move against Tristes Tropiques was not the serious attack on Lévi-Strauss, that would be a paper given by Derrida, not in France, but on the shores of provincial America, at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This now famous paper, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourses of Human Sciences,” would deliver a coup de grâce to Structuralism on the very day when this relatively recent philosophical trend was being “introduced” to America.

The year was 1966 and Derrida was a young upstart, looking to make his mark. Writing in Johns Hopkins Magazine in 2012, Bret McCabe discussed this famous event. “Structuralism’s Sampson” is about how and why such an important event took place in, of all places, America. The conference was organized by René Girard, Chair of the Romance Languages Department, Richard Macksey, and Eugenio Donato as “The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man” symposium. A number of philosophical notables, such as, according to McCabe, “Roland Barthes, Lucien Goldmann, Jean Hyppolite, Jacques Lacan, Charles Morazé; former Johns Hopkins faculty Georges Poulet, Guy Rosolato, Nicolas Ruwet, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean-Pierre Vernant, and Johns Hopkins faculty Neville Dyson- Hudson, Donato, Girard, and Macksey.” The Belgium scholar, Luc de Heusch, would not attend and Derrida was a last minute fill-in. Although very junior to most of the speakers, he came well armed. McCabe recounted how J. Hillis Miller missed Derrida’s paper, given on the last night of the symposium, and heard from his colleague Georges Poulet: “I have just heard the most important lecture of the conference—it’s against everything that I do but it was the most important lecture.”


Jacques Derrida

This statement by Poulet proved to be prophetic, for, in retrospect it seemed evident that a single paper took the “structuralist” turn and diverted it to “post-structuralism,” which in the case of Jacques Derrida would become a branch of philosophy called “Deconstruction. In America all of these French tendencies were lumped together into a rather reductive version called “theory.” In his book From the New Critics to Deconstruction. The Reception of Structuralism and Post-Structuralism (1988), Art Berman noted the uneven and un-chronologial publications of French philosophy. Berman explained, in part, that

Culler’s Structuralist Poetics was published in the United States in 1976, by which time the publication in France of Derrida’s De la grammatologie, which inaugurates post-structualism, is an even seven years old. Of Grammatology was published in the United States in 1976; yet de Man’s Blindness and Insight, which relies upon Derrida, was published in 1971, the year before Jameson’s The Prison-House of Language (1972), analysis of basic structuralist assumptions and preceding post-structuralism.

Today’s students are fortunate to have access to most of the philosophical works of this and the pre-war period, translated from French, German, Russian, Czech, and so on but it is important to have a sense of chronology and context. In order to understand the break announced by Derrida it is important to understand just what it was about Structuralism that left it so vulnerable to attack. Part of its vulnerability was Structuralism’s claim to “science” and “empiricism”and it is this very aspiration towards certainty and rigor that Derrida would target. The next post will discuss The Metaphysics of Structuralism.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Écriture Féminine: Historical Context



…It still remains politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to contrast the patriarchal oppression that precisely defines women as women…Toril Moi, 1995

One is not born a woman, one becomes one…Simone de Beauvoir, 1954

These two opening quotes expose a rift within post-war French feminism. One one said is Simone de Beauvoir, who was historically caught in the uncomfortable position of being a pioneer. It is possible to image Beauvoir, surrounded by men talking about their works and the works by other men, in a chic café in Montparnasse. Buffeted by the male ego, she began to rewrite history and retold the received wisdom of the Western world through the experiences of women. The Second Sex, published in 1949, is both a statement that women exist and signals a possible closure to a patriarchal system that is oppressing half the sky. But beginnings are just that beginnings and the magnitude of Beauvoir’s achievement loomed over the next generation of feminists, especially in France who felt that they had to wrestle with her as a precursor. It is rare that woman have to challenge a predecessor, but as Toril Moi stated in 1986, speaking for many French feminists, “Now that Beauvoir is dead, feminism is finally free to move into the twenty-first century.”

Feminist theory, or a critique of society from the standpoint of gender, borrowed from the only possible preexisting model: Marxism. Although Marxist theory was concerned only with class differences, its theoretical position of a critique of a (capitalist) society through a particular lens, such as class, did lend itself to a concentration on the issue of gender. Feminism altered the Marxist position that the economy or the economic system is the engine of society. True, the economic system produced a class division, but women were folded into those classes. Whether upper, middle or lower, the Marxist take on the classes rendered the female a mere counterpart of the male and did not allow gender to be considered as a reason for social ordering. For the feminists of the Second Wave, a Marxist critique of society was very appealing as was the message of social reform and revolution, but, for them, Marxism, a theory that critiqued dominance, hid from itself a dominance–the assumption that females were (should be) dominated by the males.

As was pointed out in earlier posts on the history of feminism, First and Second waves, one of the ironies of so-called reformist (abolitionist) or revolutionary (war protest) movements is the continuation of female subjugation into the proposed more just future. It is no accident that the Suffragettes emerged out of the anti-slavery movement and that the Women’s Movement followed the uprisings and Civil Rights protests of the 1960s—each historic event specifically left women out of the equation. The feminist position would be that Othering in terms of gender pre-dated class hierarchies and that gender was as much, if not more, a determining factor of one’s role in society, than class. In fact, one could make an argument that discrimination against women was the Primal Prejudice and that until sexism is eradicated, all other bigotries remain in place.

One of the most basic tenets of Marxism was that the lower classes must be re-educated to understand that they were being exploited by those who owned the means of production. Dependent and frightened for their livelihoods and grateful for any kind of job, the laborers were reluctant to rebel against their masters. The task of the revolutionaries was to remove the veil of false consciousness and allow the working class to see that what they considered “nature” was indeed “culture.” Nothing could be more entrapped in the idea of “nature” than women, who were held down by the socially imposed doxa that women were nature. Men, of course, believed that women were, by nature, naturally, inferior to the ale and many women, especially middle class women, benefited (or so they thought) from their subservience. As was pointed out earlier, the feminist movement was essentially middle class and priority was given to those well-positioned womne who could make a difference. Late 20th century feminists borrowed the Marxist technique of “consciousness raising” to illuminate the gendered bases of society and to reveal the ideological constructions of relations between men and women.

Throughout the centuries of the Enlightenment, the voices of women were virtually unheard and their existence hardly factored into male-made philosophy. To merely interject women into philosophy, into critical theory was to call into question the legitimacy of the entire enterprise of objectivity and scientific progress. All claims to universality ring hollow when philosophy is confronted with the actual lived reality of women and people of color and those who did not conform to the heterosexual “norm.” One of the more interesting aspect of feminism is that, unlike Marxist revolutionaries, the movement did not directly attack government but developed a theoretical interrogation of knowledge itself. The goal was to undermine, not the epistemology or philosophy, but the practical way in which knowledge was produced. If half the human race is systematically eradicated from history, eliminated from scientific discourse, denied access to the political system, and prevented from having equal access to social opportunity,then knowledge and the discourses it produced was suspect. The question was how and what to attack.

The America feminists of the late 20th century were university educated intellectuals, well positioned to question the methodologies of the male enterprises, from literature to philosophy to science to language itself. Over the course of forty years of continuing challenges to received wisdom, traditional male scholarship was shown to be sterile and narcissistic, women learned to be suspicious of monolithic systems, such as science and religion, that not only excluded them but also devalued women. There were several distinct modes of feminist critique, carried out in the arts and in the sciences and in the humanities. One could conduct a feminist reading of any kind of text, from a newspaper article to a scientific journal, in other words, to posit the feminist (not a woman who was not a feminist) as a reader/viewer of something that had been produced by a man for men. This type of reading would reveal how male authors have used women as a sign in their semiotic systems and how women have been led by male culture to imagine themselves in male terms.

In 1973 Robin Lackoff wrote “Language and Woman’s Place” which convincingly demonstrated that the very language we speak services the empowerment of men and works hard to keep women in a powerless position. Language has trapped women, which are represented only as objects, images, and stereotypes in a culture that is marked by omissions and misconceptions about women. As Lackoff concluded,

Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-worldimbalancesand inequities. They are clues that some external situation needs changing, rather than items that one should seek to change directly. A competent doctor tries to eliminate the germs that cause measles, rather than trying to bleach the red out with peroxide. I emphasizethis point because it seems to be currently fashionable to try, first, to attack the disease by attempting to obliterate the external symptoms; and, secondly, to attack every instance of linguistic sexual inequity, rather than selecting those that reflecta realdisparityin social treatment,not meregrammaticalnonparallelism; we should be attemptingto single out those linguistic uses that, by implication and innuendo, demean the members of one group or another, and should be seeking to make speakers of English aware of the psychological damage such forms do. The problem, of course, lies in deciding which forms are really damagingto the ego, and then in determiningwhat to put in their stead.

If naming is a man’s prerogative, given to Adam by God, then it is the task of the feminist to use critique as interpretation, insisting on the perspective of the female, leading to pluralism of reading and demanded interpretation or a counter-interpretation and hermeneutics as a critical stance. Another feminist position was to attack male critical theories, such as that of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, which was based entirely on male experience. These androcentric models needed to be de-coded and de-mystified, a task undertaken by many women over the course of decades. The feminists analysis of male discourses and male texts would reveal the connection between textuality and sexuality, art and gender, and psychosexual identity and power. But, as always, in examining the male-based knowledge and discourse, there was the problem of reinforcing its power by acknowledging its power.


Sandra Gilbert (left) and Susan Gubar (right), 1980

At the peak of the Second Wave of feminism, the key question was whether or not to acknowledge the male or to ignore the male. Ignoring the male meant raising yet another question: what did art by women look like through the feminist eyes of women as viewers and as readers? One of the best-known books of this type was published in the year 1979 was The Madwoman in the Attic by the writing team, Susan Gilbert and Susan Gubar. The remarkable year also introduced a feminist critique of literature, termed “Gynocritics” by Elaine Showalter. Like other early feminist scholars, Showalter focused on the essential issue of difference and explained how “difference” between men and women was used by men to disadvantage women. Unlike Gilbert and Gubar who concentrated on literature by women writing in a repressive society, Showalter examined the female literature from the perspective of the female reader. Gilbert and Gubar accepted the essential psychoanalytic definition of women artists as displaced, disinherited, and excluded. Women as artists have a troubled and tormented relationship to female identity. For women, gender is a painful obstacle and a dehabilitating inadequacy, making the self-assertion that is writing an agony.

Showalter pointed out that embedded in the feminist critique of both the female and male writer was a concentration on the male–either as a writer a fictional protagonist or as an “authority” who authorized certain established interpretations—all of which served only to reinforce the power of the male. What feminism needed was to study the literature of women from the perspective of women in order to unearth the buried female culture. Another hope of these feminist theory was that the narrow male-oriented studies of the (male) arts would be expanded to include newly discovered and recovered artists and writers who were women and people of color and to read their images and texts, not from the male perspective as taught in the university, but from a feminist perspective. The results of the attempts to reform academia from the inside have been mixed. Certainly feminist theory became part of the very institution it attacked but, in many cases, was either marginalized as “women’s studies” or incorporated as a “token.”

Academic skirmishes over who and what should be studied were called the “canon” wars, a reference to a canon of “great” books or “major” monuments—all by men, put in place on by males and consecrated by males on the vague basis of “quality,” a concept that appeared (due to the lack of representation by women) to be gendered. The (white and male) opposition to the inclusion of women and people of color in courses of university studies was based upon the assumption of a finite number of “slots” available for membership in the canon. The male argument went: if Jane Austen was included then Charles Dickens would have to be excluded and what would “literature” be without Dickens? If one were to contrast American feminists to the French feminists it would be the difference of perspectives between the experience of women on the two continents. American women had been politically enfranchised and socially empowered for more and far earlier than the women in France, who were not able to obtain the right to vote until 1944.

In France, feminist criticism paralleled certain separatist activities among American feminists during the seventies, especially in the area of visual arts in Los Angeles, and, as such, tended to be more intellectually edgy and politically radical. Écriture féminine is, simply defined, writing the female body. As Antoinette Fouque stated, “…our enemy isn’t man but phallocentry; that is, the imperialism of the phallus.” As was established in earlier posts on Freud and Lacan, the foundation of male theory on the social order was based on the male body, with the phallus as the signifier of domination. Although both groups–those in Paris and those in Los Angeles–would be accused of “essentialism” by returning to the female body as a source of meaning, Écriture féminine was a literary movement. Whether or not these feminists ventured onto to dangerous ground by replicating the tactics of their male counterparts, the idea of “writing women” was advocating the possibility of examining the role of the female body and female difference in language and text. Utopian in nature, écriture féminine reasserted the value of the “feminine” as a struggle to rescue the feminine from stereotypical associations created by males with the supposed “inferiority” of the feminine to the masculine. Rather than intellectual critique or attempts at reform, écriture féminine at its most extreme was an organic or biological criticism, asserting, “anatomy is textuality” and attacking the status quo from the radical outside.

As always, the question is how literal to take these or any assumptions over “anatomy.” This position was or could be a return to the crude anatomical essentialism that had oppressed women in the past or the implications were both Promethean and metaphorical. Gilbert and Gubar, for example, considered the association of the text with masculinity, of writing as being a patriarchal aesthetic. The pen was considered an extension of the penis, while women’s writing/art making is marked by anxiety about their lack of phallus/predecessors. Annie Leclerc’s “parole de femme” is language that is not oppressive to women and that loosens the tongue, i.e., makes it easier for women to make art. As the expert on Surrealism and sexuality, Xavière Gauthier noted,

As long as women remain silent, they will be outside the historical process. But if they begin to speak and write as men do, they will enter history subdued and alienated; it is a history, that, logically speaking, their speech should disrupt.

Women’s art needs to work within male discourse, and work ceaselessly in order to disrupt it and to deconstruct it. Women must write what cannot be written, and to do this they must reinvent language. They must speak outside and against all phallocentric structures which are based on the specular, that is of men looking at and investigating women in order to disempower them.

While women must pay homage to both their mothers and their fathers, men are able to ignore their female predecessors. Male writers will acknowledge Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson but they do not consider these women as “mothers” of literature, only as authors who are historical figures. Women artists are marked by feelings of loneliness and alienation. They need sisterly precursors and fear antagonism from male readers and suffer from anxiety over their own female intervention, uninvited, into a man’s or public world. Women have always been artists, but they have been willfully forgotten by men. The feminists in France and/or those associated with écriture féminine were very concerned with philosophy and philosophical systems that perpetuated male domination. The question was where to begin–with equality which might imply equality on male terms or with difference which might imply locating the distinctiveness of women first and pursuing parity on their own female terms.

L’écriture féminine is associated with the French group known as MLF, Mouvement de libération de femmes, and is led by four leading female writers, Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and the recently deceased, Monique Wittig. They share a common opponent—masculinist thinking and believe that Western culture is fundamentally oppressive and phallocentric. The Symbolic Discourse of the West is dominated through verbal mastery–to write and speak from a particular position is to appropriate the world.Women must resist this will to master by asserting jouissance, a direct re-experience of physical pleasures of infancy which have been oppressed but not entirely obliterated by the Law of the Father. Women are prevented expression of their own sexuality and must speak of their sexuality in a new language that would establish their point of view–a site of difference from which the phallocentric controls can be taken apart in the exercise of the theory and practice of féminine/féminité. This new sight/site is focused on women, not on their divergence/difference from men or from men’s views of women, but upon what it would mean to re-think philosophy from the standpoint of the body of the female.

Another post of interest discusses the work of Luce Irigaray.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]